The Crux of the Tragedy

Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language. I know because everyone says so. Like most of you, I was compelled to experience his greatness in school, and I did not particularly enjoy it. (It was Othello. I could not work out the math by which the Great Handkerchief Scandal resulted in murder.) Earlier this year, I decided to give Shakespeare another go. I browsed Amazon for options and, scrupulously applying my principles, chose the most cost-efficient: the complete works of Shakespeare, bound into one enormous volume that could probably be used as a murder weapon but cost, used, $10.

The table of contents covers well over two thousand pages. I searched it for a place to begin and, intimidated, settled on the beginning. I proceeded on this direct approach only to be confronted by Romeo and Juliet. All my adult life, I had intended to never read Romeo and Juliet. But it was the next story in the collection and so, for a sense of completeness, I read it. The play has four centuries of hype to live up to and, as you would expect, it doesn’t.

It has its points, of course. My experience of Shakespeare is limited – Romeo and Juliet is only fourth in the book – but he seems to have been the kind of writer whose work is often uneven but never meritless. There is wit and gorgeous verse in Romeo and Juliet. The dramatic irony is interesting. The graveyard denouement, and Juliet’s living burial with her dead relatives, are evocatively horrible. And although Shakespeare probably didn’t intend it, it is kind of funny to watch Romeo drama-queen all over the stage.

And yet, as a love story, Romeo and Juliet is hasty and shallow. The two meet at a party and marry the next day. By the time they commit suicide, they have known each other perhaps a week. Granted, it was a jam-packed week, mostly with murders, but still. I know they were passionate to the point of hysteria. I know they gave some pretty speeches. I hold, nonetheless, to the principle that one of the requirements of a grand love affair is that it outlive milk.

If not a grand love story, Romeo and Juliet is a great tragedy – needless and self-inflicted, unredeemed by nobility. Neither hero nor heroine was courageous when it might have helped. Both, once they discovered each other, became cruel to everyone else – whether it was Juliet declaring her cousin’s death a good thing or Romeo skewering poor Paris. When the apothecary protested that he could be executed for selling the poison, Romeo goaded him into it by scorning his hunger and poverty. He put the man’s life at risk and pressed him into the guilt of complicity with another’s self-destruction. These are great moral crimes.

Mostly, Romeo and Juliet distinguish themselves by their absolute lack of wisdom and good sense. They were not star-crossed lovers. They were simply and inexcusably wrong about everything. Their secret marriage was a disaster in the wings from I do. That was so exceedingly obvious even they should have seen it. The only question was whether the crisis would be forced when Juliet got pregnant or when her parents chose a husband for her. Romeo and Juliet might have at least tried the honest approach. Rejecting that, they might have run away together. Either brave frankness or open rebellion could have saved them. But they would literally have rather killed themselves.

The only sensible reaction to Romeo and Juliet is Children, you are really very stupid. And that is the crux of this tragedy – that they were little more than children in need of adult supervision, and nobody was it: not the Nurse, not Friar Lawrence, not their awful parents. Romeo and Juliet got drunk on their first sip of sexual love and ruined everything. That is not a beautiful love story, nor an ennobling tragedy, but it is piercingly poignant.

Redundant Redundancies

Today’s topic is redundant phrases. We have all had it drilled into us that redundancy is bad and clean, effective communication excises the pointless. We also have ingrained into us our civilization’s stock of well-worn and oft-used expressions, which did not undergo a strict vetting by licensed grammarians and therefore contains redundancies. Like Orwell’s animals, some of these redundancies are more equal than others.

Some of them have no excuse except that they have been worn into our brains. We use them without thinking, but we should stop. You should not use the phrase a pair of twins because that is, you know, how twins work. It’s not necessary to state that some famous person has written an autobiography of her life, because she scarcely could have written an autobiography of anyone else’s life. A biography of his life is likewise unnecessary but more forgivable. All moments are brief, and all summaries should be. A warning that isn’t advanced isn’t. Cooperate together is repetitive because one cannot cooperate alone. The phrases added bonus and free gift are simply not acceptable.

Cease and desist and null and void are admittedly redundant. But they are also lawerly – and not in the greasy way of commercials for local personal-injury law firms but in the magisterial way of Oliver Wendell Holmes. There is something almost soothing in their official lilt. And cease, desist, null and void are all excellent words that we find too little opportunity to use in casual conversation. So we are not going to fuss about these phrases. We are also inclined to give a pass to twelve noon and twelve midnight. True, noon or midnight alone would be sufficient. Yet these phrases have rather a nice ring. We also note, if anyone needs a more objective rationale, that noon and midnight qualify twelve, which needs qualification. But mostly we note that you can easily imagine twelve noon and twelve midnight being spoken with a British accent.

Perhaps the most redundant of all redundancies is that famous assertion I saw it with my own eyes. Judged only by redundancy, this expression would not only be taken out but, afterwards, shot. Yet I wouldn’t give it up. The elaboration with my own eyes is pure emphasis, a verbal exclamation point. For the same reason, I am soft on completely annihilated. Annihilation is total destruction and cannot be more complete than it already is. But I think that, as decimate lost its old precision of ten percent, annihilated is losing its precision of one hundred percent. A little emphasis on its totality may not be wrong.

Some repetitive phrases are merely bad habits. Others have been elevated almost to the level of philosophy while remaining, still, bad habits. Remember that all experience is lived experience. That’s what makes it experience: you lived it. There is no need to clarify that your or anyone else’s experience is lived – unless, of course, you are writing a paper and up against a word count. Similarly, every religion is a system of belief with established ceremonies and practices, and an institutional hierarchy to go along with it. No religion got to where it is without organization, and it is pointless to toss around organized religion. There is no other kind.

There is considerable objectivity in which phrases are redundant. There is considerable subjectivity in which redundant phrases are acceptable. So tell me which you rate as more equal, and which you rate as less. But please, don’t tell me you want to keep added bonus.

Not Always Popular

Today we are going to discuss three distinctly Christian subgenres of speculative fiction and why they are not always popular with Christian readers of speculative fiction – such as myself, and possibly you. Feel free to share.

First, a disclaimer is in order. I am not, in principle, opposed to any of these genres, and as a reader I have at least dabbled in all of them. I am certain that each one boasts some truly fine books. I am not saying that there is anything inherently inferior about such stories – let alone inherently wrong. It’s simply that I – playing the odds of what I am most likely to enjoy – don’t choose to read them anymore.

And now, enough disclaiming and onto the point. The three distinctly Christian subgenres are …

The End Times. Again: some fine books belong to each of these categories. Evan Angler’s excellent (and sadly discontinued) Swipe series is a shining illustration of the point. In the main, however, I don’t enjoy novels about the End Times. On the one hand, I find it dreary to read about relentless loss, tribulation, and cataclysm, culminating in the Anti-Christ’s conquest of the entire Earth; on the other hand, I find it predictable. It’s just mapping Revelation prophecies to the inevitable conclusion. I loved Angler’s End Times series, but I wasn’t sure it was an End Times series until the second book. Until then, I thought it might have been a dystopia flavored by apocalyptic prophecy – and hoped that it was.

The Nephilim. My instinctive response to the Nephilim subgenre is neutrality. I am not offended by the angel/human concept, and if you recast the essential idea in a sci-fi form – members of an incorporeal species assume physical bodies to interact with humanity, and interact to the point of reproducing – it’s actually pretty intriguing. (Question: In such a scenario, would the offspring really be hybrid? Because for reproduction to be possible, wouldn’t the assumed bodies have to be genetically human, perhaps with minor variations from the norm …?)

But – and how can I put this kindly? – novels about the Nephilim often take an extreme left turn into strangeness. UFOs, Roswell, tinfoil government conspiracies, monsters, aliens – sometimes all in the same book (I know – I read it). It’s all too much. The Nephilim subgenre also gives too much play to false readings of Scripture: one, that it was because of the Nephilim that God sent the Flood; two, that the Nephilim are somehow connected to the End Times. (In a cheap intellectual sleight of hand, some quote Jesus, “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the Son of Man” – leaving off the rest of the passage, where Christ explains in what way the days of the Son of Man will be like the days of Noah, and it isn’t the Nephilim.)

Angels v. Demons. I don’t question the poetic triumph of Paradise Lost, or the shrewd, sharp effectiveness of The Screwtape Letters. And it isn’t only the classics. This Present Darkness was one of my first loves in Christian speculative fiction. But over the years I cooled toward stories that give center stage to angels and demons. I admit, the last couple books I read in the genre did much of the cooling. Yet I think it is a general – not, of course, a universal – weakness of such stories to make angels too … human. I want a bit of grandeur or otherworldliness, a flavor of heaven or hell. It’s a tall order, and harder the larger the role. Even now, I think that angels (good and bad) can be well-used in fantastic fiction – but especially in roles that are somewhat marginal, or mysterious.

In my earlier years of reading, I wandered through these subgenres and ended at the conclusion that they are Not My Thing. It’s curious how easily they overlap. Somewhere, I know, they have converged entirely into an End Times novel where the Nephilim fight with demons against angels …

Another Few Highlights

A few months ago I highlighted those books that, in my two years reviewing for Lorehaven Magazine, were most memorable. These highlights were mostly flash reviews with a slight turn of book recommendation, if you want to take them that way (I disclaim). I decided to reprise the idea and broaden it – not highlights of Lorehaven books, or explicitly Christian books, or even necessarily books. These are highlights – flash reviews, book recommendations if you want them – of speculative fiction. There is no unifying theme to the stories chosen except that I, personally, liked them. 

“Bobok“, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Last year, in one of my sporadic efforts to become well-read, I read a collection of Dostoyevsky’s short stories. I would have read one of his novels, but they all seemed to be a minimum of 600 pages, and I didn’t have that kind of commitment. In “Bobok”, a man lingers in a graveyard after a funeral and overhears the corpses’ conversation. It’s hinted that the man is a drunk, and possibly a lunatic (I mean, even before the eavesdropping on the dead begins). But he might have really heard it, and it almost doesn’t matter. What matters is the conversation. This short story is horror, but of a different flavor than its bare premise suggests. Although not overtly religious, “Bobok” possesses a spiritual horror, less from death than from what death unveils.

Night of the Living Dead Christian, by Matt Mikalatos. Reading the title, it’s a parody. Reading the book, it’s really more of an allegory – but a hilarious one. Humor and profundity mix easily in this book. The struggle between humanity and monsters is internalized, fought in the human heart even more than out in the world. The idea is true, and serious, and Mikalatos achieves poignancy with it. But more often than serious, the book is funny. How would you think an android, a mad scientist, and a purportedly-but-not-really normal person would go about hunting a werewolf? Well – do you know how impossible it is these days to find silver bullets?

“Leaf By Niggle”, by J.R.R. Tolkien. This short story is an absolute masterpiece. Broadly allegorical of Death’s journey and Life’s purpose, it summons up those deep, half-formed longings sometimes stirred by nature or art. The style is light, with a leavening of humor, and still cuts straight and true to the most momentous ideas. I have rarely seen any story deal so wonderfully with Heaven. There is something gentle about this story and the mercy it finds for people like, well, most of us: not heroic, and not villainous, sometimes trying and too often not. “Leaf By Niggle” is one of Tolkien’s obscure works, but there is no reason for it.

The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton. I suppose you could call this a detective novel because, after all, it is. I’m still including it. It’s the sort of witty, merry romp that defines Chesterton – serious about everything and somehow always having a good time. The narrative is thickly veined with the philosophical, occasionally mystical excursions Chesterton never could resist. In the last act, it curves into speculative fiction. The ambiguous ending is a small part of that; most of it is the mystery of the man called Sunday – the mystery not only of who he is, but what he is (“I am the Sabbath,” he tells an interrogator. “I am the peace of God”).

The All-Time Great

The western world has been determinedly turning out pop-culture Christmas stories for a solid 150 years. There is the classic It’s A Wonderful Life, the overrated Frosty the Snowman, and the classically overrated Gift of the Magi. But the best of them all – possibly even the first of them all – is A Christmas Carol. Its greatness is made of many parts; I will here name five of them.

The characters. Ebenezer Scrooge is immortal. Dickens sketches his portrait in sharp, strong strokes – the covetous old sinner – and embellishes it with detail and variegated colors. He’s triumphantly awful in the beginning, in an entertaining sort of way; his sympathetic side emerges as soon as the spirits do, because it is rather gaming of Scrooge to debate the ghost of Jacob Marley over whether it actually exists, and you must admire anyone who responds to a haunting with personal insults (“There is more of gravy than of the grave about you!”). The rest of the story effectively shows his souring and then his softening.

Other characters occupy their own territory in civilizational memory. Jacob Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Future are chillingly evocative, and if Bob Cratchitt and Tiny Tim live under the accusation of being saccharine, they still live.

The writing. There are excellent film versions of A Christmas Carol, by which I primarily mean the one with George C. Scott. But the narrative and description of the written story are a delight that cannot be replicated in any movie. Dickens’ story breathes with color, wit, and feeling; he could – and did – describe an apple and give it character. If you can read Marley or the Ghost of Christmas Future without your blood being a little chilled, you were cold-blooded to begin with. If you can read his descriptions of food without getting hungry, you’re not even alive.

The supernatural character of the story. Technically, only Marley was a ghost. The other three were spirits. Still, the Ghost of Christmas Future is as harrowing an apparition as old Marley. A Christmas Carol is captivating in part because it seamlessly weaves Christmas story with ghost story, sentiment with horror. The story aims for the heart. It makes no qualms about playing on the nerves as well. A Christmas Carol creates, for its stage, a nexus of the spirit world and the world as humanity has made it – and it is unforgettable.

The sentiment. A Christmas Carol beats with sentiment – richly, warmly human sentiment. It ranges without shame from lunges at primal human sympathies to refined elocution. Tiny Tim is the height of the first; the second is scattered throughout the text, one of my favorite examples being the Ghost’s rebuke to Scrooge’s dismissal of the poor as surplus population: “Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

To be fair to Dickens, his sentiment was not entirely without a sterner note. Marley strikingly refused Scrooge’s plea for comfort: “I have none to give. It comes from other regions, Ebenezer Scrooge, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men.”

Which is the sort of thing that really lets you know where you are in life.

The joy. I’ve written before how Scrooge’s cold heart is manifested in his joyless life, and his return to human sympathies is a return to fun. Scrooge is recalled to charity; he is also recalled to joy. One of the charms of A Christmas Carol is how innocently and wholeheartedly it rejoices in the material pleasures of Christmas. There is nothing ascetic or gloomy about its view. The story makes no difference between goodness and happiness, between high sentiment and simple pleasure. They flow simply, naturally together – and that is wonderfully attractive.

Four Classes

At the beginning of the summer, I was looking for a book of fairy tales to read, ideally one that included stories on which no Disney film has been based. I found Gertrude Landa’s Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends, and I was enchanted.

This collection is charmingly fanciful, and at times playfully absurd. It is, moreover, unique in the different flavors of fairy tale it offers. The book is admirably broad-minded in its inspiration, drawing from Scripture and history and legend. I am going to briefly sum up the four classes of fairy tale in this book, prefaced by two observations. One of these is positive, and the other less so.

One, the book is unusually effective in merging religion with stories. I have tried to cipher out why the book succeeds as it does, and I think the fairy-tale form has a great deal to do with it. As fairy tales, these stories shrug off the burdens of detail and solemnity. They respect religion, yet treat it with lightness and frankness. This is certainly not the only way to treat religion, and probably not the best way, but it is an enjoyable way. Now, the second and negative observation: There is moral dissonance in the casual acceptance of slavery sometimes glimpsed in this book. It’s jarring, and in the most flagrant instance downright chilling.

And onto the four classes:

Secular. Although most of the fairy tales in this collection are religious to some degree, a minority makes nothing of religion, one way or another. Among these are some of the more lackluster offerings, such as “The Red Slipper” and “Abi Fressah’s Feast”. But this minority also includes the superior “The Princess in the Tower”, which is at once the most democratic and most effectively humorous tale in the collection.

Biblical. I use here a narrow definition to cover only those stories directly based on biblical narrative. Of course, directly based can still be loosely based, as many a Hollywood film has demonstrated. These are not Sunday-school stories. They only involve Sunday-school characters, drawing them out from the Bible and into a world of fancy. Thus Pharaoh suffers somewhat whimsically in “The Higgledy-Piggledy Palace” and David rides a unicorn in “From Shepherd-Boy to King”. Minor figures in Scripture are granted starring roles, though not to any glory. In “The Paradise in the Sea”, Hiram grows convinced of his own immortality – and deity.

Religious. Truthfully, most of the book could come under this heading. I use it in order to group the fairy tales that invoke religion without pirating the Bible. A representative example of this is the prophesying rabbi of “King for Three Days”. “The Rabbi’s Bogey-Man” is a more compelling instance, and the most imaginative is found in the synagogue in the heart of Ergetz, the land of demons, djinns, and fairies – for, it is explained, they also have all manner of religions. This tale, “The Fairy Princess of Ergetz”, is the best in the category and possibly the best in the book. In all these stories, there is no self-consciousness about religion, no sense of argument or defense. It simply is, like the sky.

Historical. A handful of the fairy tales play out in quasi-historical settings. “The Palace in the Clouds” occurs somewhat vaguely in Assyria; “The Pope’s Game of Chess” occurs much more definitely in Germany. But not too definitely. These are still fairy tales, and history is a source of invention rather than strict facts. “King Alexander’s Adventures” is the most striking example of the historical fairy tale, not least because in it, history so dizzingly meets religion and myth.

A Few Highlights

So you all know about Lorehaven, right? Great.

I began writing reviews for Lorehaven about two years ago. Lorehaven reviews are most often short, no more than 150 words, and their purpose is to help you know whether the book in question is the sort of thing you would like. Whether it is the sort of thing we would like is not of great interest. The necessary brevity, together with the desired objectivity, encourages a straightforward treatment: summary, strengths, weaknesses, conclusion – and no more than two or three sentences for each.

But I’ve been reflecting on the books I have had the opportunity to read and the privilege to review. I am going to highlight just a few, those that remain most vivid in my mind after the time that has passed. A couple of these overlap with genres, or subgenres, I don’t normally favor. This demonstrates that although the disadvantage of assigned books is that you read things you would not have chosen for yourself, the advantage is that you read things you would not have chosen for yourself.

The Red Rider, by Randall Allen Dunn. I am going to state right at the beginning that this one was too strong for my tastes. Yet it was striking, and memorable even after two years. This comes, I think, from three qualities: one, its perfect meshing of the fairy tale of Red Riding Hood with the legend of werewolves; two, its dark, dreamlike atmosphere – as if it is taking place not in our world but a worse version of it; three, the almost bizarre appropriateness of its horror elements. “Little Red Riding Hood” always was ghastly, you know.

Nick Newton Is Not a Genius, by S.E.M. Ishida. This brief novel is, technically, for children, and I won’t be backward in admitting that it matches its intended readers with a certain simplicity. But it is colorful and creative and utterly charming. Even the simplicity is played into a virtue. This world of robots and whimsy would not be nearly as much as fun if we had to enter it with the deadly seriousness of adults.

Journey Into Legend, by Henry Schreiner. This one is a throwback, and not only because it contains college students who write actual letters. The narrative – presented through diaries, letters, and other documents, its fantastical element fortified with science – is reminiscent of the great Victorian-era forays into science fiction. It’s magical realism, old-school.

Launch, by Jason Joyner. Have you ever noticed that if you squint, certain biblical figures – say, Elijah or Samson – might be superheroes, only with more religion and less spandex? This novel takes that idea out for a spin and proves it to be a lot of fun. It is also strikingly successful in creating, without artificiality or strain, the youthful, contemporaneous world of its teenage protagonists.

To Ashes We Run, by Just B. Jordan. The two greatest strengths of this novel – and you should understand that by greatest strengths, I mean the things that most appealed to me personally – are the world-building and the characters. I always find special appeal in fantasy worlds that can combine genuine mythos with a realistic consideration of politics and culture. I find even more appeal in any novel that feels, and causes me to feel, the lives and personalities of its characters.

A Vulnerable Technique

When you had to write in school, you were probably placed under certain all-encompassing bans. “Never use the first-person” is a perennial favorite among teachers. I once had a respected professor who instructed students not to use semicolons. Now, the semicolon is a perfectly legitimate punctuation mark and has been put to many venerable uses. I believe my old professor banned it because so many people were prone to use it badly it was better that no one use it at all.

Many of the “Nevers” in writing are drawn up along a similar principle: Almost nobody does it right, so nobody should do it. Adjectives are an oft-targeted victim of this kind of reasoning. Another technique vulnerable to it is flashbacks, our topic of the day. Flashbacks possess a special nature, generally inclined to be awkward. They are written like narrative, but they are not narrative. Flashbacks disrupt the story, breaking up the flow and momentum of events to reprise old news. I have seen them done well, but I have also seen them done with extraordinary badness. Not all authors appreciate the nature or the purpose of the technique.

Two rules may be applied to the use of flashbacks. First, flashbacks must be relevant. A good way to think of this is that flashbacks must be revelatory of the story and not of the characters. What ought to be revealed of your characters can be revealed through the narrative proper: through their present talk, actions, thoughts. You might have constructed an entirely fascinating backstory, but you are telling a different story. Your story is in the present. The past throws light on the present, but the present throws light on people. There is no need of flashbacks to tell us about your characters.

Once I read a sci-fi novel that made excellent use of flashbacks. Very brief chapters, sprinkled among the narrative and set apart by italics, gave snapshots of the past. But these snapshots were keys to the story. They explained the nature of the present struggle, put forward mystery, foreshadowed the final revelation of villainy. Like all good flashbacks, they were dedicated to the story.

The second rule is that flashbacks must be brief. Again, flashbacks break the flow of the story, and for that reason they must be employed sparingly. Even if the flashbacks are genuinely interesting, people will become frustrated and impatient if the story is continually interrupted for field trips to the past. Flashbacks can spice up a story, but they should never be a main ingredient. Neither are they, in prodigious measure, likely to be altogether relevant. In the rare event that a prodigious measure is necessary, it is possible that you are starting the story in the wrong place.

The things people warn you about when you write fiction can generally be done. They just have to be done carefully. Flashbacks have been used to great effect, and you should always feel free to use them yourself. Only remember that they break the narrative and so must be very relevant and always brief.

Once Upon a Future Time

Full of far off worlds and wonders close at home.

They’ll span the breadth of space and time.

The Kickstarter for Once Upon a Future Time, Vol. 2 has opened! This anthology contains eleven authors and over 400 pages of classic fairy tales retold as science fiction. Among the rest is my own “Jack and I,” a re-telling of Jack and the Beanstalk.

Drop on by to learn more and join the cause!

‘Hidden Histories’ Is Out!

Hidden Histories is out! This anthology of speculative fiction tells stories of history altered, forgotten, and misreported. Among the rest is my own short story “The Fulcrum.” In “The Fulcrum,” the military – having expended its pound of cure – turns to the ounce of prevention, and launches a time-travel operation to ensure that the war they lost never happens.

Hidden Histories is available on Amazon. For further information, drop by Goodreads or Third Flatiron Publishing.